Cargo Cult Administration

Many physical scientists learned of the curious phenomena of the Cargo Cult from Feynman's commencement address at Caltech, as reproduced in his book, "Surely You're Joking, Mr Feynman!".

In the address, Feynman cautions us against the conceptually similar notion of Cargo Cult Science, where people go through the motions of mimicking a scientific process, while never comprehending the essential nature of science.
The Cargo Cult Scientists follow some process that bears a superficial resemblance to science without understanding the true nature of what they are doing and the results are worthless.

It is increasingly obvious that many administrative actions are really manifestations of Cargo Cult Administration. These administrations are following processes that only superficially resemble actual administrative actions: administrations talk of "best practices", and "stakeholders", and "consultation" and "transparency", but do not act accordingly.
Rather policies are put in place that are either irrelevant or inconsistent, if not actively counterproductive.
No consideration is made of whether the actual issue at hand is essentially comparable to whatever "best practice" is being applied was developed for, much less whether its implementation is effective.
Stakeholder groups are assembled based on criteria other than whether those consulted actually have a stake in the issue, and others who clearly do have a stake are ignored and shut out.
Consultation becomes a pro-forma process, either intended to reinforce preconceptions or to provide a distraction with the input received promptly discarded.
Transparency is opaque, or a one-way mirror, and rarely leads to actual reception or adoption of feedback. It is forgotten that transparency is a means, not an end.

"Cargo cults often develop during a combination of crises."
So it is with Cargo Cult Administrations.

Under stress, administrations fall under the leadership of figures, often lawyers, or advised by lawyers.
The leaders emphasize policies which on examination are seen to have a common core purpose of protecting the leaders from legal action, with the emphasis on process rather than results.
The underlying actions often have purpose in establishing or enforcing a social order in which the administrators take leadership roles and take control of distribution networks, changing the balance of power and role of other leadership groups within the society.

The Cargo Cult mentality occurs in many contexts, but the most insidious and damaging is surely its emergence in administrations in crisis.

More like this

I like to think I'm developing a little niche here on Confessions of a Science Librarian, at least as far as some of my book reviews. And I like to think that niche is reviewing science-oriented graphic novels. And I've reviewed a few over the past couple of years. Logicomix (review), Evolution…
The book tagging meme is back! I love it. Arunn of Nonoscience has a nice list up and has passed on the book love to yours truly. So here goes. One book that changed your life?"The Real Man" by Boris Polevoi. I read the tamil translation from Mir Publishers. One book you have read more than once?"…
The other day, I got to thinking about cults. The reason is that it's been clear to me for some time that the antivaccine movement is a quack cult. In fact, a lot of quack groups are very cultish, the example that reminded me of this having been an excellent report published by a young mother named…
The following is a collaborative effort by PalMD, the usual author of this blog, and Ames Grawert, JD, a soon-to-be-sworn-in attorney working in New York City. Proponents of science-based medicine have always had one major problem---human beings are natural scientists, but we are also very prone to…

Your critique may have merit, but without examples to illustrate what you are criticizing, the force of it is diffused. Name some names, please.

By Bolan Meek` (not verified) on 16 Aug 2013 #permalink

Actually, to be precise - I may not do that at this stage without getting myself into serious real life trouble.
At least I can not name topical names of realistic examples that I had in mind without getting into serious real life trouble.

Sometimes obliqueness is necessary.

Ug. Commas both inside and outside quotes. Basic punctuation required.

By Kevin Hoover (not verified) on 17 Aug 2013 #permalink

I like this essay. I can tell you these phenomena run rampant in the corporatized (privatized) charter schools that are all the rage here in Arizona. How many countless hours of teacher's time is wasted in staff meetings were a bureaucrat spins one cliche or buzzword after another? I've heard the, "we want your input" line, only to see the person who makes any suggestion shot down on the spot. Teachers learn very quickly to shut up and put up with the BS so they can get through their lunch hour meeting unscathed and get back to what they really love. (Did I mention these meetings take place during lunch half-hours? We've got nothing better to do apparently). This is not the only example.
Sorry I had to rant there but your cargo cult administration idea struck a nerve of recognition.

By KnightBiologist (not verified) on 18 Aug 2013 #permalink

If we live in permanent crisis or at least the perception of it, we can be permanently 'lead' by cargo cults.

By Miguel V. (not verified) on 19 Aug 2013 #permalink

This 'cargo cult administration' theme seems to be more and more prevalent in public university administrations, where the state seems more and more intent in decoupling itself from the task of higher education (thus creating a crisis)..

By Eccentric &amp… (not verified) on 20 Aug 2013 #permalink

Consultation becomes a pro-forma process, either intended to reinforce preconceptions or to provide a distraction with the input received promptly discarded.

Or, as Sam Goldwyn so eloquently put it: "If I want your opinion I'll give it to you." The problem may seem worse now than in the past, but it has long been with us.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 26 Aug 2013 #permalink